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Phantom of the Capitol

Phantom DC for Short

A RESTful API for retrieving the required fields for and filling out the contact forms of members of the US Congress.

Phantom DC has three major functions:

  • Looking up form fields provided by all members of congress
  • Using PhantomJS to proxy fill-in a congress member's form such that they need not navigate directly to the congress member's web page
  • It can return any captcha images and forward the user submitted solution to the .gov website

This project relies on:

How to Use This API

Documentation is located here.

How to Contribute to This Project

Dev/ Production Setup with Docker (Recommended)

Docker makes it easy to set up Phantom DC for development, production, and testing.

Here's an example which will get you a quick development instance:

$  cp docker-compose.yml.example docker-compose.yml
$  cp .env.example .env
$  sudo docker-compose up --build

Take a look at config/phantom-dc_config.rb.example to get an idea of what configuration options you can pass on to the phantom-dc docker instance using environment variables in .env. In most instances, you'll want to change the AWS config options.

If you're actively developing, you'll probably also want to share your host directories path with the container by adding volumes to the app service in docker-compose.yml:

      - ./cwc:/opt/phantomdc/cwc
      - ./app:/opt/phantomdc/app
      - ./public:/opt/phantomdc/public
      - ./spec:/opt/phantomdc/spec
      - ./tasks:/opt/phantomdc/tasks
      - ./db/migrate:/opt/phantomdc/db/migrate
      - ./docker/app/

To run the test suite using docker, run:

$    sudo docker-compose -f docker-compose.test.yml run test_app rspec spec

You may also want to run a cron daemon for your production setup which pulls the latest YAML files from contact-congress or your other data sources every so often. Only run this after giving time (~5min should do it) for the phantom-dc container to initially populate its members of congress upon the first run:

$  docker run -it --rm --name=phantom-dc-cron \
      -v /var/run/docker.sock:/var/run/docker.sock \
      -v $(pwd)/docker/cron/crontab:/etc/crontabs/root \
      docker crond -f

Development Environment Installation and Setup with Vagrant


Using Debian or Ubuntu? Here's a one liner to save you time.

$  apt-get install vagrant virtualbox
  • An AWS account for storing captchas and debug screen shots.

  • SmartyStreets Account
    An API key for using SmartyStreets allows rake tasks to run.


On Host
$  # First, using, fork this repo so you can clone directly \
   # from your own repo \
   git clone<YOUR_ACCOUNT>/phantom-of-the-capitol.git &&
   cd phantom-of-the-capitol &&
   vagrant up

$  # Edit config (at minimum change DEBUG_KEY and AWS credentials) \
   cp config/phantom-dc_config.rb.example config/phantom-dc_config.rb &&
   vi config/phantom-dc_config.rb
Within Vagrant VM
$  vagrant ssh

$  cd /vagrant;
   bundle exec rake ar:create;
   bundle exec rake ar:schema:load;
   rackup --host

Production Environment Installation and Setup


On a Debian based system (we're testing against Ubuntu) download and install the latest phantomjs and then run the below apt-get command.

$  apt-get install imagemagick libmysql++-dev libpq-dev git libqt4-dev xvfb

Install ruby with rvm, then

$  gem install bundler;
   bundle install;

Create the mysql database:

$   cp config/database.rb.example config/database.rb;

    # fill in db info as with any rails app \
    vi config/database.rb;

    # configure the app datafile
    cp config/phantom-dc_config.rb.example  config/phantom-dc_config.rb;
    bundle exec rake ar:create;
    bundle exec rake ar:schema:load

Populating the Database

Once you have Phantom DC running, you have to add DataSources. DataSources are git repositories containing a subdirectory filled with yml files which tell Phantom DC how to fill out forms. In most cases, you want the US Congress data source, which should be added via the below command:

$  ./phantom-dc datasource add --git-clone \ us_congress ./us_congress members/

To update the DataSource repos, run...

$  bundle exec rake phantom-dc:update_git

Run this rake task any time you want to update the DataSource repos to the latest commit of each repository. To add and remove DataSources, see the help dialogue for the CLI:

$  ./phantom-dc datasource --help


Just run rackup


If you haven't set up the test db, create it, using config/database.rb

Then you'll need to create and prepare the test database:

$  PADRINO_ENV=test bundle exec rake ar:create;
   PADRINO_ENV=test bundle exec rake ar:schema:load

And run

$  bundle exec rspec spec

Debugging Phantom of the Capitol

The Congress Forms Debugger is a useful tool for debugging Phantom DC. To run it locally, in config/phantom-dc_config.rb first make sure to set DEBUG_KEY to a shared secret and CORS_ALLOWED_DOMAINS to add localhost:8000 if the debugger is going to be run on port 8000. Then:

$  git clone &&
   cd congress-forms-test &&
   vim js/config.js # edit this file so that `PHANTOM_DC_SERVER` points to your own `phantom-of-the-capitol` API root.

$  python -m SimpleHTTPServer # or configure apache for this endpoint

Now, you should be able to point your browser to http://localhost:8000/congress-forms-test/?debug_key=DEBUG_KEY (replacing, of course, DEBUG_KEY) and see a list of members of congress with a column for their Recent Success Rate. From here, you can click on the bioguide identifier for a member of congress and be brought to a page where you can then:

  1. send a test form fill
  2. see details about their recent form fills, including (if it was an attempt resulting in failure or error):
    • the Delayed::Job id #
    • a debugging message
    • a screenshot at the point of failure
  3. view the actions for this member of congress, as the database sees them (e.g. if you want to make sure the actions match the latest YAML from contact-congress)

Re-Running Jobs That Resulted in error or failure

Any jobs that result in an error or failure are added to the Delayed::Job job queue, unless the SKIP_DELAY environment variable is set. This job queue should be checked periodically and the jobs themselves debugged and re-run to ensure delivery. A number of convenience rake tasks have been provided for this purpose.

rake phantom-dc:delayed_job:jobs_per_member

Dispays the number of jobs per member of congress in descending order, indicating which members have captchas on their forms and giving a summation at the end.

rake phantom-dc:delayed_job:perform_fills[regex,job_id,overrides]

Perform the form fills in the queue, optionally providing:

  • regex which will only perform the fills for members with matching bioguide identifiers
  • job_id which will only perform the fill for a given Delayed::Job id
  • overrides, a Ruby hash which will override the field values when the fill is performed


$  rake phantom-dc:delayed_job:perform_fills
$  rake phantom-dc:delayed_job:perform_fills[A000000]
$  rake phantom-dc:delayed_job:perform_fills[A000000,,'{"$PHONE" => "555-555-5555"}']
$  rake phantom-dc:delayed_job:perform_fills[,12345,'{"$EMAIL" => ""}']

rake phantom-dc:override_field[regex,job_id,overrides]

Override values for jobs in the queue, optionally providing:

  • regex which will only override the values for members with matching bioguide identifiers
  • job_id which will only override the value for a given Delayed::Job id
  • overrides, a Ruby hash which will override the field values for the criteria specified


$  rake phantom-dc:delayed_job:override_field
$  rake phantom-dc:delayed_job:override_field[A000000]
$  rake phantom-dc:delayed_job:override_field[A000000,,'{"$PHONE" => "555-555-5555"}']
$  rake phantom-dc:delayed_job:override_field[,12345,'{"$EMAIL" => ""}']

rake phantom-dc:delayed_job:zip4_retry[regex]

Pick out the jobs that have no $ADDRESS_ZIP4 defined, figure out the zip+4 based on the address and 5-digit zip in the job (requires an account with SmartyStreets with credentials in config/phantom-dc_config.rb), and try the job again. Optionally provide:

  • regex which will only perform the fills for members with matching bioguide identifiers


$  rake phantom-dc:delayed_job:zip4_retry
$  rake phantom-dc:delayed_job:zip4_retry[A000000]

Manually Run Jobs That Have ReCaptchas

Since forms with ReCaptchas cannot be filled automatically, nor can they use Phantom's CAPTCHA system, they have to be run manually afrer they error, using a local installation.

First, comment out lines 15 and 16 in boot.rb:


Make sure you're database configuration connects to whatever database has the ReCaptcha form fills.

Then run this rake task:

rake phantom-dc:delayed_job:perform_recaptcha_fills

This will run each ReCaptcha job and open the form in a local Firefox browser, pre-filling it with information from the job. You can then manually fill the ReCaptcha and submit. To continue on, enter Control-C in the terminal to complete the current job and move to the next until they all are finished.

Padrino Console

If you prefer to dive deep, you can fire up the padrino console with padrino c and debug jobs:

> Delayed::Job.where(queue: "error_or_failure").count # count of all jobs
 => 78
> job = Delayed::Job.where(queue: "error_or_failure").first # get the first job
 => #<Delayed::Backend::ActiveRecord::Job id: 318, priority: 0, attempts: 1, handler: "--- !ruby/object:Delayed::PerformableMethod\nobject:...", last_error: "Unable to find css \"p\" with text /Thank you!/\n[\"/ho...", run_at: "2014-07-03 12:14:10", locked_at: nil, failed_at: nil, locked_by: nil, queue: "error_or_failure", created_at: "2014-07-03 12:14:10", updated_at: "2014-08-26 18:50:27">
> handler = YAML.load job.handler # get the "handler" which contains the object to be acted upon and the arguments
 => #<Delayed::PerformableMethod:0x0000000544ae30 @object=#<CongressMember id: 60, bioguide_id: "F000457", success_criteria: "---\nheaders:\n  status: 200\nbody:\n  contains: Your m...", created_at: "2014-04-30 19:08:05", updated_at: "2014-07-03 18:54:34">, @method_name=:fill_out_form, @args=[{"$NAME_FIRST"=>"John", "$NAME_LAST"=>"Doe", "$ADDRESS_STREET"=>"123 Fake Street", "$ADDRESS_CITY"=>"Hennepin", "$ADDRESS_ZIP5"=>"55369", "$EMAIL"=>"", "subscribe"=>"1", "$SUBJECT"=>"Example subject", "$MESSAGE"=>"Example Message", "$NAME_PREFIX"=>"Mr.", "$ADDRESS_STATE_POSTAL_ABBREV"=>"MN", "$TOPIC"=>"Example Topic", "$PHONE"=>"555-555-5555", "$ADDRESS_ZIP4"=>"1234"}, nil]>
handler.args[0]['$PHONE'] = '123-456-7890' # set the phone number

Then, when you're ready to retry the fill:

handler.perform # try filling out the form
handler.object.fill_out_form(handler.args[0]) do |c|
  puts c
end # fills out a form with a captcha
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